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Canadian Firm Helps Military in Colombia. Print
Canadian Firm Helps Military in Colombia.

Ottawa Citizen

Wednesday, 21 February, 2001

By Glen McGregor

OTTAWA- A Canadian aerospace firm is helping maintain helicopters for the Colombian military with the federal government’s blessing, despite the country’s atrocious human rights record and massacres of civilians by Colombia’s armed forces.

Vector Aerospace of St. John’s, Newfoundland announced last month that it has signed a $6.5 million contract with Colombia to overhaul engine components and supply parts for military helicopters, the workhorse of the South American country’s army.

Canadian export regulations prevent the sale of military goods and technology to governments with persistent human rights violations, unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk the goods will be used against the civilian population.

Colombia’s army and affiliated para-military organizations have been cited for numerous violations by international organization Human Rights Watch. Most appalling was an attack last August in which troops fired indiscriminately into a crowd in the town of Pueblo Rico, killing six elementary school children who were on a field trip.

“According to witnesses, soldiers fired for forty minutes, ignoring the screams of the adult chaperones,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a report.

Vector Aerospace’s CEO, Mark Dobbin, says his company does not vet the human rights records of countries the company does business with, preferring to rely on the government for direction.

“We follow to Canadian government guidelines, and if they deem it a country suitable for doing business, then we tend to agree with that,” he said. “I don’t believe it is appropriate for me, as a custodian of our shareholder’s money, to make those types of value judgements.”

Mr. Dobbin described military contracts as a ‘growth market’ for the publicly traded company. As spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade said the department’s export control division decided that Vector did not require a special export permit because the helicopter parts are considered civilian products, not military equipment.

“They argue that it’s civilian equipment, but the end user is the Colombian military,” says NDP MP Svend Robinson, who recently returned from a trip to Colombia. “What guarantee is there that this equipment won’t be used in a way that Canada doesn’t accept?”

Mr. Robinson said doing business with the Colombian army is “totally unacceptable” given its well-documented history of human rights abuse.

Richard Sanders, a member of the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade, says defense contractors often rely on “loose loopholes” in regulations that allow the export of civilian equipment that may ultimately be used for military applications. A common method, he said, is to ship to the U.S. where the equipment is modified before being sent to its destination.

Canada has exported helicopters directly to Colombia before. In 1994, a Quebec company won a contract to supply 12 Bell helicopters, the same model used by the U.S. for counter-insurgency operations in Vietnam. Again, the government allowed the export because the company claimed the aircraft would not be used for military purposes, even though some of the choppers had already been earmarked for counter-insurgency operations. The U.S. is also a major supplier of helicopters to the Colombian military for use in drug interdiction.

The Colombians have been criticized for the blurring the lines between the drug war and its battle with guerillas, which has resulted in the massacre of thousands of unarmed civilians.

Colombia’s armed forces and affiliated para-military groups have killed some 20,000 civilians in the crackdown since 1996, according to an Amnesty International report. Human Rights Watch accuses Colombia’s military of “direct collaboration” with para-militaries in attacks on civilians, including a massacre last year in the village of El Salado. While the military blocked the International Red Cross from entering the area, a para-military group conducted a two-day orgy of violence that left 36 villagers dead.

“They tortured, garroted, stabbed, decapitated, and shot residents,” claims a report. “Witnesses told investigators that they tied one six-year-old girl to a pole and suffocated her with a plastic bag. One woman was reportedly gang-raped.”

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